The Hoover Houses and Community Structures
Historic Structures Report
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HOOVER COTTAGE (continued)


A. The Cottage as a Tourist Attraction

In the weeks immediately following Hoover's nomination for the Presidency, the "little cottage under the maples" became a Mecca for thousands of tourists. Motorists driving east or west over the recently designated Herbert Hoover Highway turned south on Downey Street "to view the cottage and to stop a while in the town where history was made." Mrs. Scellers opened her house to these visitors. In the first month after the Kansas City Convention, 1750 visitors had registered in her guest book, and hundreds had driven past, pausing to take photographs, but not coming in to register.

Mrs. Scellers enjoyed her title as "hostess to the nation." An examination of her register showed that Herbert Hoover was especially popular with visitors from abroad. These people spoke of their great respect for the man who had done so much to alleviate suffering in their homelands during and after World War I. [1]

A "knight of the road" had also stopped off to see the Cottage and to ask Mrs. Scellers directions to the cemetery where Hoover's parents were buried. His reasons for doing so, he explained, was to tell his fellow "knights" that he had visited these historic sites. [2]

On November 6, 1928, the nation's voters went to the polls and Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States by a landslide. On March 4, 1929, he was inaugurated as our 31st President. With Herbert Hoover in the White House, the Birthplace Cottage continued to be a popular tourist attraction. On May 14, 1929, the baseball team from Meiji University in Japan visited West Branch. Stopping at the Cottage and registering with Mrs. Scellers, the Japanese took group photographs and sang several songs in their native tongue. [3] On July 13 Will Irwin, author of Herbert Hoover: A Reminiscent Biography, and his wife, also an author, visited the Cottage. Although he had written about Hoover's boyhood, it was his first visit to the town where the President had lived for his first ten years. [4] Five days later, 45 members of Phi Lambda Theta, a national education fraternity meeting at Iowa City, drove to West Branch and presented an interesting program at the Cottage. [5]

In the year since the Kansas City nomination, the number of registered visitors at the Cottage numbered more than 17,000. For tours of the house, Mrs. Scellers charged ten cents. On summer Sundays and during dedication of the D.A.R. marker, Mrs. Scellers set up a souvenir stand on her front lawn, where the curious could purchase everything from a biography of Herbert Hoover to a flower basket. [6]

Visitation to the Cottage fell during the winter of 1929-30 to almost nothing, but with the coming of spring and the end of the school year, it again picked up. Mrs. Scellers registered a large number of tourists during the week of July 4, 1930, including on one day three from Austria and Germany.

Among the visitors was the Rev. J. P. Schell of Ambrose, North Dakota. Schell, who was 86, told Mrs. Scellers that he had once lived in West Branch and before construction of the Presbyterian Church, he had organized a Presbyterian Sunday School. Services had been held in William Collins' Wagon Shop, across the street from Jesse Hoover's Cottage and Blacksmith Shop. [7]

Throughout the summer visitors continued to come. On the Labor Day weekend, Mrs. Lillian Clark Casey, past National President of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic; Mrs. Joseph Chaloupka, president of the Dubuque Circle of the order; Mrs. Harriet K. Hardy, chaplain of the Dubuque Circle; and Mr. Casey, who acted as chauffer, drove down to West Branch to see the Cottage.

Mrs. Casey had recently returned from the National Convention in Cincinnati. As they toured the Cottage, Mrs. Casey explained to Mrs. Scellers that she was interested in the preservation of Presidential Birthplaces. [8]

Interest in the Hoover Birthplace showed no signs of ebbing, although the nation was caught in the throes of a world-wide depression. Mrs. Scellers reported in mid-July 1931 that since the summer of 1928, 34,348 persons had signed her register. Addresses entered included every state in the union, as well as many countries abroad. Since January 1, 1931, more than 2,000 had registered, with 120 signing the book on Sunday, July 12. [9]

School groups also came to the Cottage. Typical of these was the Junior Class of Deep River, Iowa, High School. Accompanied by their history instructor, the students toured the birthplace on Thursday, October 22, 1931, and secured a "first hand impression of the surroundings among which the president was born, to supplement their classroom work." [10]

There was a distinguished visitor at the Birthplace on Tuesday, May 10, 1932. He was Dr. Daniel A. Poling, chairman of the Allied Forces for Prohibition, editor in chief of The Christian Herald, and president of the World's Christian Endeavor Union. While in West Branch, Dr. Poling addressed a card to President Hoover, telling him how much he enjoyed his visit to the "babyhood Home." Taking cognizance of the "simple two-room Cottage with its old fashioned small paned windows and door built of three or four plain boards, with their homely latch," Dr. Poling suggested that President Hoover "must have had some long thoughts as he visited again the home he knew long ago." [11]

It had looked for several weeks in 1929 as if the Cottage would become a Gretna Green. On May 14 at the birthplace, Miss Dorothy Helen Franco of Tipton was married to Francis C. Riedesel of Bennett. Eight weeks later, on July 11, Miss Ettyle Countryman of Wyoming, Iowa, became the bride of Harry H. Dice of Wilton. [12] This fad did not catch on, and there were no more weddings at the Cottage until 1940.

President Hoover's political enemies also visited the Cottage to pay tribute to Hoover—the man. The presidential election campaign of 1932 was exceptionally bitter, as Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic speakers hammered away at the theme that Hoover and the Republican Party were responsible for the depression engulfing the nation. On September 23 Josephus Daniels, who had been Secretary of Navy in Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, was in Iowa City to address a Democratic rally. Learning that Hoover had been born in West Branch, Daniels motored over to Cedar County. He was accompanied by F. R. Boyles, William Hart, and other Johnson County Democratic wheelhorses. While at the Cottage, Daniels purchased a postal card of the house, which he mailed to his wife in Raleigh, N.C., and told his traveling companions and Mrs. Scellers that he and his wife and the Hoovers had been personal friends since the World War. [13]

Although Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party were snowed under by a Democratic landslide in November 1932, the Hoover Cottage continued to be popular with tourists. Typical of those visiting the cottage in 1933 were Mr. and Mrs. James E. Potter and their two sons of Akron, Colorado. They stopped in West Branch on Monday, August 21, while en route to Chicago's Century of Progress. Mrs. Potter's interest in the Cottage had been whetted several years before, when several of her friends had returned from West Branch with souvenirs they had purchased. She had accordingly written Mrs. Scellers, ordering a number of Hoover Birthplace plates and postal cards. [14]

Another interesting visitor during the week was Vera E. Fawcett of Kirksville, Missouri, a great granddaughter of West Branch pioneer Elisha Haines. [15]

B. Two Famous Bands Visit the Cottage

1. The U. S. Marine Corps Band's September 1930 Performance

On Saturday, September 20, 1930, the stirring strains of John Phillip Sousa's march "Stars and Stripes Forever" blared out on south Downey Street The United States Marine Corps Band, the President's own, had come to West Branch. Leaving Washington, D.C., on a tour which would take the bandsmen across country, they had given a concert in Iowa City on Friday night, and were scheduled to play in Cedar Rapids Saturday afternoon.

President Hoover having consented to the band's appearance in West Branch, 20 cars driven by local businessmen picked up the bandsmen at their Iowa City hotel. The Marines in their handsome blue dress uniforms were driven to West Branch. The first stop was at the cemetery to allow the band to visit the graves of the President's parents. From there they were driven to the Birthplace Cottage. There they met Mrs. Scellers and registered. Capt. Taylor M. Branson and his men cheerfully posed for a number of photographs, as a crowd, estimated to number about 2,000, gathered.

Meanwhile, a portable bandstand, 60 feet long, was set up on south Downey Street, in front of Dr. L. J. Leech's House. The bandsmen took their positions on the stand, and, shaded by the giant maples, Captain Branson raised his baton, and at 9:30 a.m. the 30-minute concert began. In addition to "Stars and Stripes Forever," six other stirring patroitic numbers were played. Members of the community were delighted with the performance, and the band was given several rounds of applause. As his men were loading their instruments into automobiles for the trip to Cedar Rapids, Captain Branson expressed "the pleasure of himself and his men at being able to play at West Branch, and for the courtesies shown them." [16]

2. The U.S. Army Band's September 1931 Performance

The following September 5, the United States Army Band, not to be outdone by the Marines, gave a concert at West Branch. Advised that the band's annual tour included dates in Iowa, a local committee had contacted C. C. Cappel, manager of the tour, and a performance was tentatively scheduled for the President's birthplace. [17]

It was not until the evening of the 4th, while the band was playing in Muscatine, that the local committee was assured that arrangements had been perfected for a visit to West Branch. The word went out, and early on the 5th a crew, under the supervision of the street commissioner, erected a temporary bandstand under the 60-year-old maples in front of Dr. Leech's. Flags and bunting decorated the bandstand, while welcome signs and flags were displayed in front of every business house.

The Army Band arrived from Muscatine on the morning train and was met by citizens in cars. Capt. William J. Stannard then ordered his bandsmen into the automobiles, and they were driven to the cemetery for a visit to the graves of Jesse and Huldah Hoover. Next, they were driven to other points of interest and finally to the Birthplace Cottage. Like the Marines the year before, the bandsmen registered and posed for photographs with Mrs. Mollie Curran and Dr. L. J. Leech.

Captain Stannard ordered his men to their places and the concert commenced. The shining instruments, the immaculate uniforms, and the stirring music thrilled the large audience, "as it was recalled that the occasion was a very special one, because it was here the first president from west of the Mississippi River was born, and this same U.S. Army Band had led the inaugural parade, when the West Branch boy took the oath of office."

During an interlude in the concert, United States Representative W. F. Kopp made a few remarks, welcoming the band, thanking the visitors, and complimenting West Branch and the committee which had arranged the visit.

At the end of the concert, the band was driven to Waterloo by West Branchers, where it was programmed to give a concert on Saturday evening. [18]

C. The D.A.R. Marker

In 1929 the Pilgrim Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Iowa City determined to mark the site of President Hoover's birth. The marker, a "native boulder," a gift of Samuel Hemphill of North Liberty, Iowa, with its attached bronze plaque, was positioned in front of the Scellers Home in the first week of July. [19]

The marker was dedicated on August 10, the 55th anniversary of the President's birth. On that day the streets of West Branch were decorated and a platform erected on the street east of the Cottage. Mrs. Scellers had her house "freshly painted a delicate cream." On the lawn were clusters of wild flowers, while in the distance to the west could be seen cornfields and pastures. With the stone positioned, the large wooden sign in Mrs. Scellers' front yard to call attention to the Hoover Birthplace was removed.

On dedication day, celebreties came from many points, including several from Waterloo, Mrs. Hoover's former home. There was Father F. J. Flanagan and the Boys Town, Nebraska, Band. While Mrs. George M. Clearman presided, Mayor N. P. Olsen made a few remarks and Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa, made the principal address. Shambaugh referred to the cottage as "a symbol that American democracy still lives." While Mrs. Robert T. Johnson, state chairman for historic sites, spoke in dedication Misses Betty Boiler and Margaret Chittenden of Iowa City lifted the United States flag which had veiled the monument. [20]

D. The Des Moines Reconstruction

In March 1929 the Better Homes Committee of Des Moines sent a committee and several architects to West Branch. While the committee met with West Branch civic leaders, the architects, having secured Mrs. Scellers' cooperation, made measured drawings of the Birthplace Cottage. These drawings were used by the Better Homes Committee to have the Cottage reconstructed. The reconstruction was featured at the Better Homes Exposition in Des Moines. It was then sold to the State Fair Association and relocated on the State Fair Grounds. [21]

The Diamond Jubilee of the Iowa State Fair was in August 1930. Although this was the second year for its exhibition, the reconstructed Hoover Cottage remained a popular attraction. Mrs. Mollie Brown Curran served as hostess, and it was estimated by fair officials that about two-thirds of those in attendance walked through the structure. [22]

E. The Cottage as a Subject for Artists

In the period, 1928-1933, four artists painted the Hoover Cottage. Three sought to depict the Cottage as it appeared when it was the Hoover's home. The fourth artist, Grant Wood, painted the house and its environment as it appeared in September 1931.

1. The Allen Philbrick Painting

Soon after Herbert Hoover's nomination, Allen Philbrick, an instructor at the Chicago Art Institute, traveled to West Branch to paint the Birthplace Cottage as it appeared before it was relocated and remodeled by Port Scellers. Relying on recollections of old-timers and working under the supervision of State Curator Edgar Harlan, Philbrick prepared his large canvas for display in the State Historical Building at Des Moines.

When completed, the Philbrick painting showed the Cottage as it was when Theodore Hoover

picked the horseshoe clinchers from the floor of his father's shop and nailed them to the walls in grostesque frescos around the walls of the little room, and Bertie Hoover trotted across the dusty road every morning with a pail of milk for the Sullivan family, who lived back of the shop. [23]

The Philbrick painting shows a single-story frame structure, with siding. There is a stoop, similar to the one on the restored Cottage, and two windows, each with 12 lights, in the east elevation. The brick chimney is near the north elevation, and Lots 42 and 43 are enclosed by a three-board fence. (A copy of the Philbrick Painting is in this report.)

2. The Henry Standing Drawing

Levi Boweles, former superintendent of Scattergood Seminary, had Henry Standing in 1928 prepare drawings of four West Branch structures, intimately associated with Hoover's boyhood. One of these was the Hoover Cottage. Standing, like Philbrick, relied for his information on recollections of long-time residents of West Branch. [24]

The structure shown in the Standing drawing is similar to Philbrick's Cottage, except that the art work is primitive. There is the same siding; stoop; two windows, each with 12 lights; a chimney near the north elevation; and a three-board fence. The similarity of the structures depicted by the two artists leads to the conclusion that they either relied on the same sources or closely collaborated. (A copy of the Standing Drawing is in this report.)

3. The Grant Wood Painting

The famed American painter Grant Wood of Cedar Rapids spent several days in West Branch in mid-September 1931. While in town, he prepared a number of interesting sketches of the Scellers House, the neighboring structures, and grounds. [25]

In the weeks following his return to his studio, Wood completed his painting, "The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover." When subscribers to Fortune received their August 1932 issue in the mails, they found that an article titled, "The President's Fortune," was illustrated by a reproduction of the Wood painting. A color illustration had been used by the editors of Fortune in flyers to advertise the Hoover article. The painting had also been reproduced in color in the Des Moines Register for Sunday, July 24, while the original of the Wood canvas had been placed on exhibition in an eastern gallery. (A copy of the Wood painting is in this report.) [26]

4. The Morgan Painting

W. L. Morgan of Iowa City in 1933 painted a canvas depicting the Cottage and the Blacksmith Shop. For information on the appearance of these structures in the historic period, Morgan had relied on the reminiscences of Tad Hoover and "old time settlers of West Branch." On forwarding photographs of his canvas to Tad Hoover, Morgan observed:

The cottage door is left partly open as if inviting hospitality . . . that pronounced Quaker characteristic. Instead of depicting the barn I have replaced it with a maple tree, one as voiced by Mrs. Carran as vivid in her memory west of the house. The Siberian Crab is peeping over the cottage ridge pole, and the coal shed is to be found where it belongs. The flowers I did not care to detract from the whole by too many details. [27]

The Cottage in the Morgan painting has siding; a stoop; two front windows, with 18 lights; chimney near the north elevation; and is enclosed by a picket fence. (A copy of the Morgan painting is in this report.)

F. Mrs. Jennie Scellers Dies

In mid-June 1934 Mrs. Scellers suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in St. Luke Hospital in Cedar Rapids. Her condition took a critical turn on the 26th, and her doctors sent for her children. Earl, her eldest son, drove over from West Branch, while her other children, all of whom lived on the Pacific coast, headed east. The airplane, on which Elmer had booked space, landed at the Iowa City airport, on Thursday afternoon. In his race against death, Elmer reached the hospital shortly after his mother had breathed her last. Lew and Della arrived by train the next day. [28]

Mrs. Scellers, the daughter of Isaac and Amanda Marshall, had been born near Barnesville, Ohio, June 14, 1864. She had moved with her parents, while still a child, to Illinois, where she lived until 1878, when they moved to Iowa. She had married Port Scellers on December 26, 1882. In the years since 1928, she, as owner of the Hoover Cottage, had become a familiar figure to thousands of tourists, "who registered in her books and enjoyed her pleasant personality, when they visited the cottage." She had received several attractive offers for her historic real estate, "but the ties of a lifetime were too strong" and she had refused to sell.

Her "silver hair, motherly figure and wholesome friendly ways" had given her an identity. She had greeted the "famous and humblest with the same gracious friendliness, and maintained always a staunch friendship" for the Hoovers, dating to the August 21, 1928, breakfast. Besides her hostess duties, Mrs. Scellers had been prominent in the Methodist Church, the Ladies Aid Society, the W.C.T.U., and the West Branch Cemetery Association.

Funeral services were held at the Methodist Church at 2:30 p.m., Sunday, July 1, with the Rev. H. M. Grant officiating. The body was laid to rest in the West Branch Cemetery beside that of her husband. [29]

When Jennie Scellers' will was probated, it was found that she had left her real and personal estate to be divided equally among her four children, after Elmer had first received $800. [30]

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Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006